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A Hard Right Turn

Tim Groseclose's methodology, which paints pretty much every media out as liberal, is still as flawed as it was six years ago. But now, he's written about book about it -- and the ConWeb loves it.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/12/2011

Back in 2005, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo -- who have a history of receiving grants and fellowships from various conservative foundations -- published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that claimed to demonstrate "a strong liberal bias" in all news outlets it examined except for the Washington Times and Fox News' "Special Report."

Tim Groseclose

The most informative critique of it came from Paul Waldman at Media Matters, who pointed out the basic problems in Groseclose and Milyo's methodology, which involved rating news outlets by the political slant of the think tanks and advocacy groups cited in their news reports. That analysis turned up similarly strange rankings of the think tanks themselves, ranking the American Civil Liberties Union as slightly conservative and the National Rifle Association as only slightly more conservative than the ACLU. Waldman also noted that the authors' references to previous work regarding media bias were heavy on right-wing sources and light on actual scholarly literature.

Groseclose returned earlier this year with a new book based on his and Milyo's work, called "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts The American Mind." In the book, Groseclose expands upon the original work to claim that Americans would be more conservative if the media wasn't so liberal -- even though he continued to rely on the original flawed analysis and takes potshots at its critics.

Groseclose vs. Alterman

In the introduction, Groseclose makes a big deal out of attacking liberal media critic Eric Alterman for criticizing his 2005 study for seeming to have developed a methodology that guaranteed that he would find liberal media bias, repeatedly identifying Alterman as being with liberal watchdog group Media Matters. Groseclose made the same claim in an appearance on Fox News' "Fox & Friends" in which he helped to forward Fox's longtime war on Media Matters' tax-exempt status, which is designed to silence one of its critics. (Disclosure: I am a Media Matters employee, but ConWebWatch is editorially and financially independent from Media Matters.)

But Alterman wasn’t affiliated with Media Matters at the time he wrote the column in question, which was actually published in January 2006 by the Center for American Progress. As Alterman himself explained, he did not become affiliated with Media Matters until September 2006, when it began hosting his "Altercation" blog; that affiliation ended in 2008, when "Altercation" moved to The Nation.

Alterman continued:

So why the irrelevant and inaccurate Media Matters identification with an organization with which I was so briefly affiliated? Perhaps Mr. Groseclose is simply lazy and unconcerned with accuracy. Or perhaps, as Mr. Groseclose surely knows, the words “Media Matters” act as a kind of dog whistle for the far right, implying “bad person” perhaps for its work in exposing the lies of Fox News.

Truthfully, I don’t profess to know. Certainly if Mr. Groseclose had said, accurately, “Eric Alterman, a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress,” or “Eric Alterman, a CUNY Distinguished Professor and author of eight books,” it would not have had the same effect on his desired audience.

Later in his book, Groseclose criticizes Alterman again, this time over a 2003 MSNBC interview -- he identifies Alterman again as "a writer for Media Matters" even though Media Matters wasn't founded until 2004 -- in which Alterman criticized a 1995 poll of Washington reporters finding that 89 percent said they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Groseclose focuses narrowly on Alterman's criticism of the study's low response rate, which Groseclose defended as still providing a useful study.

While Groseclose cited Alterman's book "What Liberal Media?" in referencing the low-response-rate argument, he ignored the other argument Alterman made against that study, which ConWebWatch has also noted: Most of the surveys were sent to Washington reporters for middle-market newspapers that are more concerned with reporting on their local representatives in Congress than pushing a national agenda, relatively few went to reporters for elite national publications, and conservative publications were barely represented at all.

Dismissing and ignoring critics

Groseclose's misrepresentation of Alterman and his views would seem to tell us that he's more about trying to forward a conservative agenda and less about objective research. Another clue is his dismissive attitude toward critics of his earlier research.

Groseclose ignores Waldman's analysis at Media Matters -- odd given that he devoted so much effort to tying Alterman to Media Matters -- instead painting all critics of his work as "left-wing blogs" and musing that "It may be a bit pointless to try to respond to these critiques."

Groseclose went on to note "the high standards that exist at top-tier academic journals" like the one his original study was published in, adding that "none of the left-wing bloggers has even attempted to publish such a piece" criticizing him in a peer-reviewed journal, which must mean that "the bloggers themselves do not believe that they have discovered a major problem in our article."

Yet Groseclose tacitly admits the limits of his methodology. For instance, the unambiguously right-wing Drudge Report is, via Groseclose's methodology, a left-leaning publication. Groseclose explains:

Although Matt Drudge admits that his personal view are right of center, the SQ [slant quotient, the numerical expression of Groseclose's methodology] of his Web site leans left. One reason is that our data came both from (i) the news flashes that Matt Drudge himself occasionally reports and (ii) the news stories to which his site links. In fact, of the entire 311 think-tank citations that we found for the Drudge Report, only 5 came from reports written by Matt Drudge. Thus, for all intents and purposes, our estimate for the Drudge Report refers only to the article to which his Web site links. This these come from a broad mix of media outlets, and since the news in general is left-leaning, it should not be surprising that the SQ of the Drudge Report leans left.

So, as long as you ignore Drudge's biased presentation of those articles on his website -- what many people think of, arguably, when they think of media bias -- the Drudge Report "leans left."

"Partial-birth abortion"

Groseclose devotes an entire chapter to complaining that all those presumed-liberal reporters won't use the term "partial-birth abortion," which he defended as a "plain-language term." But he also points out that it's "the language of conservatives" and claims that its usage by the media "would have helped persuade people to oppose the procedure" -- something an objectively presented news report should ideally not be trying to do. So Groseclose does endorse media bias when it biased toward his views.

Groseclose also tries to rebut the standard argument against use of "partial-birth abortion" in news articles because it's a political term and not a medical one by claiming that it "is used, at least occasionally, as a medical term." His endnote for this assertion refers readers to the medical definitions section of the Free Dictionary website. But the link he provides redirects to a page on "intact dilation and extraction," the actual medical term for the procedure, which goes on to refute Groseclose's contention that "partial-birth abortion" is a medical term:

The term "partial-birth abortion" is primarily used in political discourse — chiefly regarding the legality of abortion in the United States. The term is not recognized as a medical term by the American Medical Association nor the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This term was first suggested in 1995 by Congressman Charles T. Canady, while developing the original proposed Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. According to Keri Folmar, the lawyer responsible for the bill's language, the term was developed in early 1995 in a meeting among herself, Charles T. Canady, and National Right to Life Committee lobbyist Douglas Johnson. Canady could not find this particular abortion practice named in any medical textbook, and therefore he and his aides named it. "Partial-birth abortion" was first used in the media on 4 June 1995 in a Washington Times article covering the bill.
The ConWeb loves it

Despite such logical holes, Groseclose's thesis is ConWeb catnip since it confirms their own worldview on media bias, so it's no surprise that he was lionized there. NewsBusters touted his 2005 findings, and it conducted an interview with Groseclose in July to promote the release of his book. Newsmax also highlighted Groseclose's original findings.

In June, Groseclose was a speaker at a conference held by the right-wing American Freedom Alliance. Among his fellow speakers was WorldNetDaily managing editor David Kupelian.

Media Research Center chief Brent Bozell wrote a review of Groseclose's book for the Washington Times (reposted at NewsBusters). Unsurprisingly, Bozell praises the book; like Groseclose himself, Bozell ignores questions about the author's methodology.

Bozell wasn't done gushing:

There’s much to like about this book. There is Mr. Groseclose’s fierce intellectual honesty: He makes no bones about his own political biases. There is a certain modesty in his work: He continuously submits his theories to peer review, even when his peers’ politics veer sharply from his own. Finally, when his conclusions generally track so neatly with those arrived at through the use of more traditional methodologies, who can argue?

Bozell wasn't completely laudatory of Groseclose's book, though. His first complaint is self-aggrandizing and petty:

I confess that at the outset I wasn’t too keen about doing this review. The Media Research Center, which I head, has conducted more studies on this subject than any other institution on the planet over the past quarter-century, so I turned to the “Left Turn” index out of curiosity to see which ones were chosen for citation. (Clear throat here: Ahem.) Not a one. Worse, where the index cites the MRC, in one instance it misidentifies the group; and in the other, allegedly over three pages, it’s a phantom citation - the MRC isn’t there at all.

People who aren't Bozell would reach two other conclusions by this time: 1) the MRC's research is so horrible that even a biased researcher like Groseclose wouldn't touch it (as ConWebWatch has copiously documented), and 2) there's a lack of attention to detail in Groseclose's book that raises questions about his larger conclusions. Of course, since Groseclose's larger conclusions are the same as Bozell's, he won't be raising those questions, even as he finds more things wrong with it:

A conservative also will find faults. Mr. Groseclose labels Mr. DeMint “far right.” It can be argued that Ronald Reagan’s positions were even more conservative than Mr. DeMint‘s. What would that make the Gipper? The author cites ABC’s Charles Gibson as “nothing but fair and centrist in my judgment ABC’s Good Morning America, during his tenure, was approximately the most unbiased of all U.S. media outlets.”

Mr. Gibson was no Keith Olbermann, to be sure; but I can provide dozens of examples documenting that he was no centrist, either. In perhaps the biggest head-scratcher, Mr. Groseclose declares that the conservative bias of Fox News’ “Special Report” is equal to the liberal bias of ABC’s “World News Tonight” or NBC’s “Nightly News.” That is simply untrue across the board, be it a measurement based on story selection, labeling, placement, sourcing, spokesmen or time.

In fact, one study found that the "All-Star Panels" on "Special Report" are consistently stacked in favor of conservatives. The MRC, of course, tried to dismiss this actual piece of media research; in a NewsBusters post, Tim Graham insisted that the panel's token working journalist was actually the token liberal.

Nevertheless, Bozell concluded his review by stating: "Still, I like the book and recommend it."

Groseclose also appeared on the Oct. 5 edition of Accuracy in Media's web radio show. AIM's Roger Aronoff cues up Groseclose to repeat claims from his book, and he signs on to the largely unexpressed goal of AIM and the MRC to discredit the "mainstream media":

Now, what you say about these groups such as AIM that's pointing out this bias, if these groups could make people perfectly aware of them and make voters more skeptical of the media -- whenever they read something, always be on guard, say, "Ah, maybe they're not telling us something" -- if you make people skeptical and very rational about when they read newspapers and when hey watch television, then this would allow them to discount the bias much better, and that would do -- have the same effect as eliminating the bias. And so if I lie -- so if you guys could be perfect at your job, make everyone skeptical and rational, then that would have the same effect, it would make America change from kind of a purple nation to all of a sudden voting and thinking something like Texas or Kentucky.

Groseclose went on to peddle other right-wing talking points, claiming that "self-avowed communist" Van Jones resigned from his job as Obama administration green-jobs czar "in the middle of the night" to "purposely to keep it out of the media," "there was not one word" about the Jones controversy in the New York Times. In fact, Jones has not expressed any support for communist causes for many years and has discussed his growth away from those views.

Aronoff also discusses the Drudge Report with Groseclose, pointing out that "it's pretty clear to most people that go to that site that he definitely leans conservative and is a conservative." Groseclose reiterated that he scored only the articles Drudge linked to, which is "a mix of the mainstream media." Groseclose does note that Drudge is good at highlighting "a fact that conservatives are all interested in" that might be "in, like, the eighth paragraph" of a news article and "make it the headline. If I went back and found a way just to judge the headlines that Drudge reports, I think he might be right-leaning centrist just by the headlines."

Groseclose even touted Ben Shapiro's latest book, in which he dishonestly misled Hollywood producers about his intent in interviewing them, refusing to tell them that he was out to make them look bad.

Neither AIM nor anyone else in the ConWeb are going to call Groseclose on his putting politics before research -- after all, those political views align perfectly with theirs.

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